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Technology, science, engineering

27 November 2020

China vaccinating already
China has already administered Covid vaccines to a million people – even though it hasn’t finished testing them yet. Three vaccines, produced by Chinese-owned companies Sinopharm and Sinovac, are in use among civilians as well as the military as part of an emergency-use campaign. All three are still undergoing phase 3 clinical trial tests for safety and efficacy. Despite promising results from earlier trial phases and assurances from company executives that no negative reactions have been reported since the start of the campaign, the choice to start vaccinating before safety tests are over is unorthodox and potentially risky. But the roll-out of a mass vaccination campaign does give the world an interesting test case, especially for Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia – which have pre-ordered millions of doses of these vaccines.

26 November 2020

Cup of charge
The WSJ has come out with a long list of tech gadgets for the giving season and my take on their take is that most of them are boring but one could be a godsend ($). It’s an $80 wireless phone charger called the Lexon Oblio that’s shaped like a vase. It disinfects your phone with UV light and stops you looking at it while it charges. Just plop the damn thing in and forget about it. Give this, and you’re giving people their lives back. And if they don’t like it for charging they can always use it for flowers. 

25 November 2020

Poor Charli D’Amelio
Charli D’Amelio is a 16 year-old from Norwalk, Connecticut who enjoys using her smartphone to film herself dancing. Last week she lost a million Instagram followers for bad manners in a YouTube video in which, for a new series, she was filmed dining with her family and a friend. She has since apologised but after receiving death threats as part of the backlash she also implored her followers to “just be nice”. This is no small ask, because on TikTok she has since reached 100 million of them. We’ve followed the story of TikTok’s run-in with the Trump administration quite closely. The theory is that TikTok could pose a security risk to the West because it’s Chinese owned. 16 year-old D’Amelio (net worth about $4 million) is the reality. Theory and reality are not mutually exclusive, but in some respects they seem quite far apart. 

24 November 2020

British telecoms companies caught using 5G gear from Huawei, the giant Chinese supplier, face fines of £100,000 per day, under new legislation being drafted in the UK. The plan is to ban new installation of their kit by 2024, and root it out of British networks by 2027. This is all quite a volte-face from the indecision about Huawei that marked the UK’s approach to the company – but it reflects three concerns: that Huawei could be required to co-operate with the Chinese security services, that enabling a stronger Huawei is playing into China’s strategic ambitions and that Britain is a bit too entangled with an increasingly authoritarian regime in Beijing. 

23 November 2020

Vanadium batteries
The FT’s big read on batteries opens on the north Kent coast, where locals are worried that a giant new solar farm and containers full of lithium ion batteries will spoil the view. But the tech news buried in the piece is the emergence of vanadium-based batteries for large-scale power storage to even out supply curves from renewable sources. Vanadium batteries have the twin merits of low flammability and long life (up to 30 years). The catch: vanadium is scarce and its price is volatile, which may be why scientists have been so slow to take another look at it after Nasa proved the concept of so-called redox flow batteries early in the space race. So far battery progress has been generally glacial. Are we due a Great Acceleration?